The Phoenix Foundation’s previous album ‘Buffalo’ came after a series of solo albums from the various members. When NZM’s Amanda Mills talked to Luke Buda ahead of that early 2010 release he mentioned it had been shaping up as a double album until they’d culled 25 songs down to a more manageable 10. Returning to the market with their fifth LP, exactly three years on, the musically profuse Wellingtonians have this time given in to temptation, producing a double album they’ve called ‘Fandango’. This time round Amanda talked with Samuel Flynn Scott.
I last talked to The Phoenix Foundation in 2010, just before the release of their fourth album ‘Buffalo’, discussing with Luke Buda the band’s plans for the album release and promotion, the departure of their bassist and label changes. Fast forward three years and the band (now comprising originals Samuel Flynn Scott, Luke Buda and Conrad Wedde, long timers Will Ricketts and Tom Callwood, and drummer-come-lately Chris O’Connor) are in fine form, preparing for the release of fifth long-player ‘Fandango’. There have been changes this time around too, as co-lead singer Sam Scott, divulged to me.
‘Buffalo’ was a critical success both here (shortlisted for the Taite Music Prize), and internationally, building on the acclaim that their 2007 album ‘Happy Ending’ received. European touring, good reviews, and making the bill at Glastonbury led to the band being on The Jools Holland Show. The impact on the band’s profile was immediate, selling what Scott describes as ‘a lot’ of albums in the following weeks.
“It’s pretty obvious, the kind of impact playing on things that level has,” he opines. “It’s exactly how you want to be doing things in the music world.”
The Phoenix Foundation started working on ‘Fandango’ five days after returning from that valuable Jools Holland gig, realising it had been two years since ‘Buffalo’. The album was recorded at four studios and took 15 months to complete.
“We had three days at Roundhead… then we had lots of time back and forth at our own studio [Cable Car] in Wellington. Then, we recorded in a barn in the Wairarapa… there was an open fire and the whole band was staying on the property. That was a sort of lo-fi way to record… and then at the Surgery,” Scott recalls. “It was fragmented, but I think there was a method to it all. The whole record makes sense because it was coming from the right place to begin with.”
Band changes occurred during the recording of ‘Fandango’ too, as they acquired a new drummer, Chris O’Connor. Long serving drummer Richie Singleton left the group to work on climate change projects, after earning an MA in Climate Studies.
“Basically, the opportunities were rolling in for him to branch out to his other passions… I have to say, it’s a pretty good reason to leave a band, to try and save the planet!” ventures Scott.
Much to his disbelief the in-demand O’Connor was available.
“I don’t understand how we’ve ended up with him in the band – it’s just too good to be true,” he laughs.
The drumming duties on ‘Fandango’ are split between the departing Singleton, and the incoming O’Connor.
“It will be interesting to see if people can immediately tell which drummer is which on the album. I think there’s definitely good stuff from both of them.”
The album title is credited to Mike Fabulous.
“We were really struggling to come up with a name for the record,” Scott explains laughing. “We were having a chuckle about silly album titles… then he said, ‘Fandango’, and we all went, ‘Ahhh… yes’.”
Released here on Universal, ‘Fandango’ is a sprawling double album, at an expansive 78 minutes.
“It could have possibly fitted onto a CD if we did some funny digital jiggery pokery,” Scott admits, “but we really wanted it to be consumed as two records. I do see it as two records… one record that starts with Black Mould, the other with Supernatural. I don’t know if you should necessarily listen to it from the beginning to the end with no break, it might be unhealthy!”
The Phoenix Foundation found musical inspiration for ‘Fandango’ from a diverse range of ’70s artists, ranging from Can, German acts Amon Düül II and Harmonia to The Carpenters.
“There are elements of ’70s experimental composition music, which might be known as ‘prog rock’. It feels like a good time to be making stuff that stretches out a bit, and is genuinely psyched out and trippy. There’s a few things on the album that are pop songs, but I think the things that truly define this album are the spookier tracks.”
Scott also mentions another, closer, influence.
“There’s things on there that sound like Flying Nun – Supernatural has this Flying Nun-kind of vibe, and there’s an ’80s pop thing too.”
Scott and Buda collaborated on a lot of the lyrics. Themes are downbeat, with imagery about death and change prominent.
“I think the songs that we worked on together have a sort of strange melancholy. [Buda] brings up in a couple of songs… parties ending, people not dancing anymore… I think it might have something to do with where we’re at in our lives at the moment!”
There are a number of tracks on ‘Fandango’ that show how the band’s diverse influences and approaches have worked together. Opener Black Mould is in the Motorik style, featuring lyrics about a toxic problem in Scott’s home.
“It’s a rhyme-fest!” he laughs. “I wrote the lyrics because our house was really mouldy, and I started to get a bit paranoid about what the mould was doing to our bodies.”
The song sits easily alongside the ’70s alternative pop of Thames Soup and Sideways Glance, the psychedelic folk/fuzz of Corale, and the ’80s funk of Evolution Did. Amidst the experimental tracks on ‘Fandango’, lead single The Captain sounds like a glossy pop diversion. Scott agrees.
“I think it might be a red herring. I was probably more obsessed with the kick drum gating than I was with anything else on that song! I think there’s a couple of songs… that have this shiny, glossy pop shape, but the rest… it’s a much darker record than that.”
Final track, the experimental Friendly Society, will likely attract the most comment.
“It may not sound like anything on any of our records, but that song is very true to the sort of music that we aim to make, says Scott emphatically. “In Friendly Society, we just fully went there into psychedelic [areas].
Neil Finn and Lawrence Arabia feature on backing vocals and shakers, Scott admitting dryly that, “We’ve really under-utilised their skills!”
To support the album’s release, the group are first touring the UK and Europe extensively, then returning to tour NZ.
“We haven’t done many gigs in the last year. I think we’re probably going to make up for it now!”
After 15 years as a member of The Phoenix Foundation, I ask him if the band’s focus has changed.
“You sort of have these little goals, and then… the goalposts become a bit broader. At the same time, the hopes you have of what you’re trying to achieve musically [don’t] change that much, you still just want to make the best record you possibly can.”
There is one difference, though.
“Ultimately, we make Phoenix Foundation records now. I think maybe a few records ago, we were, ‘We’ve got to try something that’s like this, or try something out like that’. We’re not confused about what sort of music we make… you get to the point where you know you’re making the music that’s your own music.”